Apple's Missing Headphone Jack and Why Innovation Requires Discomfort
SEP 22, 2016 16:11 PM
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Apple's Missing Headphone Jack and Why Innovation Requires Discomfort

By Larry Alton

Apple has unveiled its latest model of iPhone, the iPhone 7, and it carries with it a host of nifty new features you’d come to expect from the tech giant’s landmark product. However, one new feature seems to stand out more than the others when it comes to public attention and scrutiny; the traditional 3.5 mm headphone jack, long a staple for phones and similar audio devices, has been removed.

Many users are outraged at the removal of such a deemed essential feature and are confused about Apple’s motivation in the first place—but let’s not forget Apple’s history of radical design ideas that seemed inaccessible or impractical. In fact, the original iPhone, while not the first device to feature a touch-based keyboard, was one of the first devices to popularize the feature, which took some getting used to for users accustomed to traditional keyboards.

The reality is, for innovation to move forward, users have to be put in a position of discomfort sooner or later. Why is that?

Doing What No One Else Is Doing

As any marketer will tell you, one of the most important factors for a brand’s success is differentiation. If you’re only doing what other people are doing, mimicking their designs and following their approaches more or less precisely, you’ll never be able to stand out. This is why, as explained by Neil Patel, you first need to have a specific target niche.

The differentiation of removing the headphone jack may seem like a detraction—it makes the iPhone stand out as unfavorable compared to other options—but at the same time, Apple retains its reputation as a forward-thinking leader. The Apple-faithful will accept the change, probably get used to it, and eventually jack-less devices may become the “new normal.”

In this way, it’s almost necessary for innovators to opt for new features that make users uncomfortable—and it makes designers uncomfortable too. According to the Harvard Business Review, behind almost any great innovation is a tremendous amount of pain and stress.

Opting for 100 Percent Transitions

There’s also a crucial decision point when it comes to introducing certain kinds of innovations. Some innovations can happen in gradual increments—such as how more and more information can be held on smaller and smaller digital forms of storage.

But for some innovations, a full transition is both smoother and (occasionally) necessary, almost like a bandage being removed quickly to avoid prolonged pain. This is a way to optimize discomfort rather than avoid it, giving users significant discomfort up front rather than gradually introducing discomfort over a longer period of time. You can’t half-remove a headphone jack, so Apple prepared to make the full transition with its latest model.

Another good example of this happening recently is Google’s self-driving car project. Many auto manufacturers have attempted to “warm users up” to the idea of self-driving cars with individual features and technologies that assist drivers, such as parallel parking assistance or integrated GPS units.

Google, on the other hand, has opted to develop fully self-contained, self-driving cars from the start. This enables them to envision the final product first; and rather than wasting time on a series of Frankenstein-like hybrid models, they can jump forward to a more complete final product.

The Timing Problem

For companies looking to turn a profit with a new invention, there’s also a timing problem to face; sometimes, users only realize they need something when they’ve been exposed to it in some form already.

For example, the iPhone wasn’t the first smartphone on the market; there were dozens of models before it, but none of them skyrocketed to popularity the way the iPhone did, because they were all, in some ways, incomplete. Afterward, dozens of competitors tried to match the iPhone’s success, but could never overcome the iPhone’s early introduction. Great companies and great innovators are unafraid to offer “complete” packages early.

You may remain divided or angry about the missing headphone jack in Apple’s new iPhone, but it’s quite possibly a necessary step forward for phone technology. All great innovations are uncomfortable at first, until you realize retrospectively they’re exactly what you needed all along.

Don’t expect this to be the last time that Apple—or any tech company—announces a new feature that takes people by surprise.

When you do see more of them, try to withhold your judgments. 

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